Like the cavalry charging over the hill to save the day, the Super Audio CD was poised to rescue the ailing music industry five years ago. It promised far better sound quality than standard CDs, surround sound capability, and best of all, the Hybrid SACD could also play in standard CD players. In 2002, the Rolling Stones' classic '60s albums were all reissued in the Hybrid SACD format, to glowing reviews. The next year, Bob Dylan's catalog was upgraded. The sound quality blew away listeners. It seemed only a matter of time before the people who had replaced their LPs with CDs for the last twenty years started replacing them again with SACDs.
And then ... nothing. Today, Dylan's catalog has been re-reissued, this time on standard CDs. The expected flood of SACD remasters has slowed to a barely noticable trickle, mostly consisting of jazz and classical releases. If you can even find an SACD section in a record store today -- and that's if you can even find a record store -- it'll be a row or two of obscure titles on audiophile labels that the average consumer could care less about. What happened?
It didn't have anything to do with the quality of the product. With a sampling rate of several times that of a standard CD, SACDs deliver the kind of sound that the compact disc had promised but generally failed to deliver since 1982 -- rich, full and smooth, without the digital harshness found on many CDs. And their "backwards compatibility" meant that Hybrid SACDs could be played on standard CD players as well.
What did the SACD in was a combination of bad timing and bad marketing. Almost since the inception of the compact disc, customers had been teased with new remasters of CDs they'd already bought, and promises along the lines of "Oh man, this is going to blow you away. Remember how good we said the 20-bit remaster sounded? Well, this 24-bit remaster sounds so good, it's like you're in the studio with the band. You can almost smell the singer's beer breath, seriously. And the Super-Mega-Deluxe Edition is only $20!" By the time the SACD came along, the record companies had cried wolf, sound-wise, enough times so that nobody cared that this product actually lived up to the hype.
At the same time, a whole lot of music lovers had started to listen to music in MP3 form on iPods. Cool as it is to carry your entire record collection in your pocket, MP3 files sound, to put it in technical terms, like crap. And iPods themselves don't exactly deliver audiophile-quality sound, either. But when most non-geeks weighed the choices -- cheap (or free), convenient, and acceptable sound, versus costlier, less convenient, and once I convert it to MP3 it'll still sound like crap -- it was a no-brainer.
The powers-that-be in the music biz didn't help matters any by marketing the DVD-Audio at the same time. DVD-As also promised, and delivered, fantastic sound in 5.1 Surround. The problem was that you had to listen to them on a DVD player, something that's generally hooked up to your TV. I own plenty of DVD-As, but arranging to listen to them is almost like making dinner plans -- I have to sit in my little chair that's been arranged in my TV room so that I get the full effect of the Surround Sound, yada yada yada. If I just want to throw one into my Discman when I'm going to the store, no can do.
To further confuse matters, there was the DualDisc, which featured a CD on one side and a DVD on the other. Nice in theory, but the discs wound up being too thick to play in a lot of computers or CD players. The DualDisc died faster than you could say "Customer Return."
In the end, competing formats and a lack of any real attempt to inform consumers of what, exactly, a Super Audio CD was, doomed it to oblivion. (Makers of Blu-Ray and HD DVDs take note, for cryin' out loud!) So has the SACD's day come and gone? Not necessarily.
There are still a lot of audiophiles out there who aren't being served by the iPod and downloadable files. Record companies tried to turn all of us into sound quality freaks with those endless CD remasters -- don't alienate the listeners who still care about it.
And for all those people who still buy discs, or those who think about it but still think CDs are overpriced, the SACD really does give you your money's worth (assuming record companies don't charge more than the current $15-20 for 'em). This is a product for mature, quality-conscious, and most importantly, affluent music fans.
The product is there. The right marketing could make it work. Now all we need is someone to step up to the plate. Anyone have the guts to try?